This is an introductory guide to inclusive language, written for employers and HR professionals. Learn what inclusive language is, why it’s so important, and how to foster inclusive language at work.
Language is an extremely powerful tool. It’s part of how we communicate and express ourselves, and it’s closely tied to identity. Language has the power to create a sense of safety and belonging — but also to exclude and alienate.
If you’re striving to create a safe, inclusive, and respectful company culture, you cannot overlook the role of language.
We’ve written this guide to help you understand what inclusive language is and why it matters, and to empower you to promote inclusive language at work.
Table of Contents
- What is inclusive language?
- Why is inclusive language important?
- Inclusive language examples
- How to foster inclusive language in the workplace: 5 actionable steps
- Inclusive language resources and further reading
What is inclusive language?
The language we use — be it in casual conversation, official communication, on social media, and anywhere else in between — has the potential to include or exclude people.
Often, we don’t think twice about our words. We speak or write in a way that comes naturally to us. But, however well-intended or seemingly harmless, there are many terms, phrases, analogies, and linguistic “defaults” that can be harmful to those around us.
Inclusive language is about being aware of how our words can impact others. It’s about proactively choosing to use inclusive terms and phrases while eliminating potentially exclusionary language from your vocabulary.
In a nutshell, inclusive language is language that includes, respects, and acknowledges everyone. It’s the opposite of language that may exclude or harm someone in some way.
Inclusive language is respectful of everybody, no matter their:
- Socioeconomic status
- Race, ethnicity, nationality, or culture
- Religious beliefs
- Disability status
- Mental health
- Medical status
- Criminal history
We share some examples of inclusive (and non-inclusive) language later on in this guide. Next, let’s consider why inclusive language matters.
Why is inclusive language important?
Words are extremely powerful. A seemingly simple, throwaway comment that feels harmless to one person may leave another feeling unacknowledged, left out, ostracized, unwelcome, attacked, or unsafe.
Inclusive language is essential for building an inclusive workplace culture. When you promote the use of inclusive language, you:
- Create a safe space where people can thrive. If you want your employees to show up and do their best work, you need to create a workplace where they feel respected, valued, and safe. Inclusive language is a critical component of psychological safety at work — and psychological safety has been proven to drive high-performing teams.
- Foster belonging and well-being for everybody. When you use and promote the use of inclusive language (and actively commit to eliminating non-inclusive language), you send a powerful message to each and every one of your employees that says they are welcome and they belong. A sense of belonging is essential for a person’s well-being — both in and out of the workplace. And, according to a BetterUp study, a sense of belonging at work leads to a 56% increase in job performance and a 75% reduction in employee sick days.
- Avoid the perpetuation of stereotypes. Stereotypes are harmful because they can create divides among people, propagate fear, lead to discrimination, and impact a person’s own beliefs and views about themself. Inclusive language is an active step towards avoiding the perpetuation of stereotypes and protecting people from the harm they can cause.
- Attract and retain employees. A survey by QuestionPro Workforce and EQ Community found that 37% of all workers, 45% of Black workers, and 54% of managers would switch jobs to be part of a more inclusive workplace. Inclusive language is an essential part of a more inclusive culture — which is proving increasingly crucial for attracting and retaining employees.
Ultimately, if you’re striving to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (as 94% of employers say they are) you need to be committed to inclusive language.
Inclusive language examples
The topic of inclusive language is as broad, deep, and complex as the topic of language itself. We won’t attempt to cover all types and facets of inclusive language here, but rather, to provide some useful examples that clearly illustrate the difference between inclusive and non-inclusive language.
Gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language respects all genders and sexualities. It avoids defaulting to male as the norm, acknowledges all genders, does not assume a gender binary, and avoids heteronormative language and gendered assumptions.
Let’s consider some examples.
|Gendered language||Inclusive language|
|Is this the future for mankind?||Is this the future for humankind?|
|I’m waiting for a waitress to take my order.||I’m waiting for a server to take my order.|
|Should we call a fireman?||Should we call a firefighter?|
|Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!||Welcome, everyone!|
|This candidate didn’t complete his/her application.||This candidate didn’t complete their application.|
|Husbands and wives/boyfriends and girlfriends are welcome!||Partners are welcome!|
|I’ll need to speak to Jordan’s mom or dad.||I’ll need to speak to Jordan’s parent or guardian.|
Ableism is the discrimination of, and social prejudice against, people with disabilities. Ableist language perpetuates harmful stereotypes and misconceptions of people with disabilities, implying that they are “less than”, that they are defined by their disability, or that a disability is something that needs to be “fixed”.
Here are some examples of ableist language together with some inclusive, anti-ableist, and person-first alternatives.
|Ableist language||Inclusive / anti-ableist language|
|That’s so lame.||That’s so unoriginal/boring/dull.|
|My advice fell on deaf ears.||They didn’t take my advice.|
|My friend is mentally ill.||My friend has a mental illness.|
|I’ve had a crazy day!||I’ve had an unbelievable/ridiculous/wild day!|
|The teacher is wheelchair-bound.||The teacher uses a wheelchair.|
|I’m so OCD when it comes to cleaning.||I’m very particular when it comes to cleaning.|
Inclusive language regarding race, ethnicity, and culture
Many terms and phrases that have worked their way into everyday language are rooted in racism and discrimination. The language we use to describe people’s racial and ethnic identity can also be problematic, as is culturally appropriative language (taking words/phrases that hold meaning in a particular culture and misusing them out of context).
Here are some examples of problematic language and their alternatives.
|Problematic language||Inclusive alternative|
|Spirit animal||Kindred spirit|
|Minority groups||Marginalized groups, underrepresented groups|
|They sold me down the river||They double-crossed me/deceived me/betrayed me|
It’s also important to consider how you describe race and ethnicity. Be as specific as possible rather than using a broad term to describe a large group of people — for example, rather than using “Hispanic” to refer to all Spanish-speaking nationalities, distinguish between Hispanic (descendents of Spanish-speaking countries) and Latino/Latina/Latinx (people of Latin American heritage).
We’ve barely scratched the surface, but hopefully those examples provide some initial insight into the impact of language and its potential to include or exclude people.
We’ll share some useful resources at the end of this guide to help you explore the topic further.
How to foster inclusive language in the workplace: 5 actionable steps
1. Write inclusive job ads
The language you use in your job ads says a lot about your company. It will impact who your job ads resonate with and who feels welcome and encouraged to apply.
You can write more inclusive job postings by:
- Referring to potential candidates as “they” rather than “he/she”. For example: We are looking for a passionate marketing manager to join our team. They will play a pivotal role in driving our marketing strategy and overseeing digital campaigns.
- Offering inclusive company benefits. For example, parental/caregiver leave as opposed to maternity leave.
- Being mindful of ageist language. For example, if you write that the ideal candidate will be joining a “young team”, you may deter older candidates from applying. Likewise, stating a preference for “recent graduates” may exclude candidates above a certain age.
2. Normalize sharing pronouns
Normalizing the sharing of pronouns helps to deconstruct the idea that you can assume someone’s gender identity based on their appearance. It also helps to create a space where everybody feels safe to be themselves.
You can normalize sharing pronouns by:
- Adding them to your email signature and LinkedIn profile.
- Sharing them whenever you introduce yourself — for example: “Hi, I’m Jo and I use she/her pronouns”.
- Updating employee forms and platforms to include an option where people can share their pronouns if they wish to do so.
Note that pronoun sharing should never be obligatory. The goal is to create a safe and respectful environment where people can share their pronouns if they want to.
3. Educate and inform
Education, knowledge, and awareness are key when it comes to normalizing inclusive language. When people understand what inclusive language means and why it matters, they can begin to make more intentional and inclusive choices.
Prioritize inclusive language by providing education and training. Consider hiring an expert to give in-house workshops, or give your employees access to online courses such as:
- Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox-Inclusive Language by The Diversity Movement Academy.
- Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Access Essentials by Joanne Woodard (includes a module on Microaggressions and Inclusive Language).
- Inclusive Language for Marketers by Andrew McCaskill via LinkedIn Learning.
Aim to provide both general training that everybody can learn from, as well as job-specific training which will help individuals and teams foster more inclusive language in their work.
4. Create an official inclusive language policy
Inclusive language isn’t just a “nice to have” or a “preferred” approach to workplace communication. If you truly want to build an inclusive culture, make sure inclusive language is part of official company policy.
Define exactly what is meant by inclusive language, set out and explain the many different facets of inclusive language (for example, gender-inclusive language, person-first language, language regarding race, ethnicity, and culture) and provide clear, company-wide expectations when it comes to language and respect.
It’s also important to include inclusive language in any company style guides, such as marketing and branding guidelines.
Embedding inclusive language in official company policy ensures that it’s prioritized and taken seriously — and gives employees clear guidelines and expectations to work with.
5. Provide access to useful tools and resources
In addition to an official inclusive language policy, it’s helpful to provide your employees with tools and resources they can incorporate in their day-to-day work.
- Inclusive writing tools like Witty, a browser extension that detects biased language and offers inclusive alternatives.
- An inclusive language cheat-sheet, which people can refer to if in doubt.
- Tools like AllyBot, a Slack integration that checks for non-inclusive words and phrases and provides inclusive suggestions (via private message).
Such tools can help to ensure that inclusive language becomes the norm, empowering employees to identify and learn from their own implicit biases and/or potentially harmful linguistic choices.
Inclusive language resources and further reading
We’ve provided an introduction to the topic of inclusive language and why it’s so important. If you’d like to learn more (and there is plenty more to learn!), we recommend the following resources:
- The American Psychological Association’s (APA) inclusive language guidelines
- OHSU Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s inclusive language guide
- Words Matter: Guidelines on Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace
Inclusive language is just one step towards a more inclusive workplace and a positive company culture. To learn more about creating an environment in which your employees can thrive, read this guide on how to provide an excellent employee experience (EX), discover the best strategies for fostering a healthy work-life balance, and check out these five steps you can take to support mental health in the workplace.